While awards season pundits contemplate which documentaries have a leg up in the Oscar race, New Yorkers can explore a much broader array of options. For five years, DOC NYC has carved out a niche on the documentary film festival circuit, providing a much-needed showcase for non-fiction filmmaking during the final quarter of the year — the only event during this period to do so on such an impressive scale. Per usual, co-founders Thom Powers and Raphaela Neihausen, along with fellow programmer Basil Tsiokos, have assembled a vast, diverse lineup (over 90 films will screen over the course of seven days), which includes both festival favorites and new titles appealing to virtually every taste. In honor of the fifth edition, which begins tonight with a screening of the self-explanatory crowd-pleaser “Do I Sound Gay?,” here are 5 potential breakouts.
Earlier this year, the documentary “Finding Vivian Maier” involved the discovery of a heretofore unknown photographer. Now, “Maier” director Aaron Wickenden teams with co-director Dan Rybicky for another look at an under-appreciated artist, 83-year-old sculptor Peter Anton. The directors followed their subject over the course of eight years, building up to his first major exhibition and its impact on his personal life. The situation is complicated by Anton’s decision to launch his first exhibition in years, a controversial project that ultimately led Anton to flee his home — and the filmmakers were there to capture it all. Expect a delicate treatise on the aging process with bite.
“An Open Secret”
Amy Berg’s Oscar-nominated “Deliver Us From Evil” was a stunning exposé on sex abuse on the Catholic church. Now Berg has turned her camera on the same topic in a flashier context — sex abuse in Hollywood. The topic gained momentum earlier this year when allegations were leveled against director Bryan Singer, at which point news of Berg’s long-in-the-works project also came to light. The accuser in that case, Michael Egan, is among the subjects of Berg’s movie, which stretches back to seedy late nineties parties hosted by executives at the Digital Entertainment Network for teenagers forced into sexually discomfiting situations. Last week’s DOC NYC press screening was canceled at the last minute while Berg worked out details with the distributor, suggesting that she’s hit a nerve. But until “An Open Secret” premieres this weekend, it’s anybody’s guess — much like the elusive topic of her presumably incendiary project.
The great cinema vérité pioneer Robert Drew died earlier this year, but his legacy lives on his remarkably well-crafted films, which have retained their immediacy over the decades. (This year, DOC NYC will award the first-ever Robert and Anne Drew Award for Documentary Excellence to “CITIZENFOUR” director Laura Poitras.) Drew’s 1962 effort “The Chair” is one remarkable example, chronicling the efforts of attorney Louis Nizer on an ultimately successful mission to save the prisoner Paul Crump from capital punishment. The timeline for this story is much bigger than the events captured in Drew’s film: Ironically, while Crump remained in prison until he received parole in 1993, he wound up behind bars again after committing another offense and died in 2002. But Drew’s project sticks with the present moment in which Crump’s life — and, by implication, the future of the American justice system — held in the balance.
Co-directed by fellow documentary pioneer Richard Leacock, the movie captures the thrilling period in which Nizer fought to get a final hour reprieve for his client in the days leading up to his scheduled execution. With capital punishment still a matter of national concern, “The Chair” remains as topical as ever; more than that, it’s a first-rate example of non-fiction storytelling in which the filmmaking and topic are equally compelling.
In 1999, 25-year-old Angel Cordero was wrongfully convicted of a stabbing in the Bronx. “Coming Home” follows Cordero 13 years after he’s been released from prison and attempts to reconcile with his 16-year-old daughter. Viko Nicki’s delicate portrait finds Cordero battling to rebuild his life while coping with the miscarriage of justice that put him in the situation in the first place. A scripted drama along these lines might register as mawkish or didactic, but “Coming Home” captures real people in a situation all-too-often forgotten in broader national conversations about the justice system. “Right now, he’s not my dad,” Cordero’s daughter says, underscoring the intimate results of a scenario that could have been easily reduced to more conventional soundbites. Instead, Nicki follows Cordero in the present, building a narrative out of events as they unfold, resulting in a touching story that extends beyond its topical hook to develop a gently moving tale of father-daughter connections.
“The Cult of JT LeRoy”
A late addition to the DOC NYC lineup, this buzzworthy title focuses on the elusive life of abused teen author JT LeRoy — aka the older, healthier Laura Albert, though nobody knew that when acclaimed books like “The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things” burst onto the literary scene in the late nineties. Director Marjorie Sturm investigates the lengthy period before Albert’s true identity was revealed as well as its aftermath, exploring not only its professional impact but what it says about society at large that she got away with it for so long. While last year’s “Salinger” frustrated many with its sensationalist approach, “JT LeRoy” provides a more focused look at the ways in which celebrity culture plays off the public’s imagination — and how easily it can be exploited for personal gain.